Well, after coming down with the current COVID plague this past Thursday, and well into the course of medicines for combatting it, I couldn’t help but think of disease. It’s an omnipresent threat of an omnimorphous sort, but it has captured the fear and imagination of humanity for centuries. Zombies, vampires, werebeasts, berserks, and several other things that corrupt and destroy us have been taken from the generic “curse” category into the realm of virus or parasite or pathogen or genetic trait with the progress of medical knowledge over the years. But at its root is the core fear: the unseen attacker that can kill, corrupt, or destroy us, and we have little to no means to stop it.
Such threats evidently lurk in the lost lairs and decrepit dungeons in fantasy realms, but we may not really think of them compared to diabolical traps or deadly denizens stalking the depths. Gygax made sure to include such environmental hazards, whether oozes, molds, fungal spores, various things drawn to decay and rot, and even some more typical threats like greedy scavengers or angered dead. Greed and the hope of discovering the long-lost were enough motive for some to explore such dangerous places, though it’s just as likely now that many may avoid such dangerous places for fear of much effort and risk with little to no reward.
If anything, I think such abandoned wastes are ideal for initiating new players to the game (in some fashion), because it provides the challenge of adventure, but can surprise with the unexpected challenge for those who don’t think ahead of what could face them. Sure, they may be armored up and have that crossbow at the ready for a bandit ambush, but they may be simply thwarted by steep, moss-encrusted stairs slicked with dew spiraling down into the depths of an ancient ruin where a few poor unfortunates may have rushed into seeking solace from a fierce storm (or the aforementioned bandits). So what about the rope, hammer and pitons needed to provide a somewhat better descent down the stairs, as well as a means of ascent with any survivors?
And what about light sources? Or medical aid for any injured? Food? Orientation gear (if available, even)? Is there a timeline (or a deadline) involved with this expedition? All of these things add up, and then to throw the threat of exposure to a potentially deadly substance on top of that makes it all the more challenging. And, in a fantasy realm like D&D or the like, unless you have access to enough magic to keep you sanitized, you definitely aren’t going to stumble across a handy-dandy eyewash station in the depths nearby that colony of spore-spewing fungi you just stumbled blindly into.
(Oh yeah—what about the call of nature?)
I also think that our access to healthcare and sanitation shapes our views of illness and disease. There’s reasons why drinking from public water sources was a no-go for so long, and why drinking small beer or table wine was even a thing. The craze for raw milk or unprocessed foods sounds appealing until one considers the reasons why mass sanitation and pasteurization of food products took place at all. The safe assumptions of having access to safe food, water, or anything else for that matter cannot be taken at all. And that dimension is an added layer of challenge to exploring the grimy depths of a long-abandoned dump.
One of the terrors of disease and the unsanitized past is that it’s a harsh reminder not of what we’ve avoided, but of where we once were. Socialogically, this can be just as uncomfortable to consider as biologically—that we ourselves ar enot that far off from ancestors whose actions we deem as reprehensible. And, just as scary, if it weren’t for modern progress, we’d have to face the horror of high infant mortality, death by diseases now easily countered, and a great measure of more uncertaintly than we’ve ever known before.